What Role Does Social Media Play In A Widespread Crisis?

How we respond, support, and communicate.

On Friday night, a series of terrorist attacks broke out all over Paris, killing at least 128 people and leaving many more seriously injured. The shootings and bombings that occurred at a concert, outside a soccer match, and near many popular restaurants and bars, prompted French President Francois Hollande to say "France is at war," with several manhunts currently in progress to bring the orchestrators of these attacks to justice.

Everyone reacts differently to such senseless acts of violence and the loss of innocent lives, largely dependent on how close to home the tragedy hits. Some are stricken with grief, some jump immediately on the offensive, and some stay as far away from the aftermath as possible, both literally and conversationally. In the case of Paris, the direct response to the terror has been swift, from Hollande's declaration of war, to ordinary citizens' blood donations and hashtags to organize shelter immediately after the first attacks hit.

Online, news outlets' coverage of the situation picked up without a beat, and the discussion across social media unsurprisingly went wild. Facebook even activated Safety Check, previously only used in natural disasters like earthquakes and hurricanes. The feature allowed people near the attacks to mark themselves "safe" so friends and family could alleviate their worries. That wasn't the social giant's only special feature related to the attacks — it also allowed users to overlay their profile pictures with a French flag in support, similar to the rainbow option offered after the Supreme Court's legalization of gay marriage.

Social media firestorms are nothing new on the heels of major world events. However, the way we conduct ourselves depending on whether the situation is widely accepted as positive or negative can be incredibly different. Facebook, Twitter, Snapchat, and the like are phenomenal platforms in their ability to connect us across the world and keep us informed, but they're also where we tend to present our best and/or loudest selves. While there's nothing offensive or objectively wrong with changing a profile picture to represent one's solidarity in the face of senseless evil, it's very inconsequential in the context of enacting real change.

With that in mind, the difference between updating a profile picture "in support" after the Paris attacks and after the Supreme Court's gay marriage ruling is vast. While the latter sends a positive message by celebrating a landmark achievement in the realm of civil rights, the former merely draws attention to a horrible tragedy without taking any actual steps to make the world a better place.

Again, the issue here is not with the act of changing that profile picture itself — it's with the implicit feeling of goodwill that the act is likely supposed to provide. As nice as it would be to take the sum of those changed profile pictures and translate it into some sort of currency that can fight terrorism, it's not the reality, and doing so is basically just as effective as walking down a busy street and calling out in a loud voice, "I support Paris in these hard times!"

Naturally, the Internet lends itself readily to multiple waves of reactions to such a terrible event. There's the first wave of the news itself, then the reaction to it, the reaction to the reaction, and so on. No one wave is any more "right" or righteous than any other, this minor ripple included. However, it should go without saying that while social media can be a useful tool in times of crisis, it's not a complete safe haven or substitute for action in real life. Let's not forget it.

Cover image: Facebook